Probably 20 years ago, I was asked to serve as a judge on the Winchester Star leadership award panel. High school students in the area were in competition for a scholarship. My memory of the details is going dim – there was an essay and an interview process. I do, however, remember one young man.
During the interview he was asked: “Name a great leader of the 20th century and explain.” It didn’t take long for him to answer: “Adolf Hitler!” As you can imagine there was a silence and then we proceeded; “Why did you choose him?” And the young man said: “Because he was a great orator and could really move people to do what he wanted them to do.”
Well, yes, I guess – but I believe that most of us, when we think of leadership skills, mean more than manipulation and demagoguery which led to war and mass murder. No, the young man did not win the scholarship – but his was the only answer I remembered and it has troubled me to this day. As much as we all detest the legacy of Hitler, sometimes I wonder if we still, like the young boy, recognize his “charisma” and yearn for a strong leader to simply tell us who is right and wrong, who the enemy is and who is to fear.
I remember this incident because today we are about to ordain and install new leaders for our church’s ministry. And I think that spending just a few moment of what we are doing and what we mean by doing it is important for us to consider. For in a few minutes we will be marking the annual laying on of hands of those to be ordained to Elder and Deacon- and we will presume that the actual Spirit of the Almighty will inspire our leaders to lead us in our peculiar ministry and mission. It is an inspiring moment.
For those of you who are visiting and have not seen something like this before – well, hang in there with us…it is what we Presbyterians do. We are not Pentecostals, so I doubt you will see anything entertaining, but then you never know. What you will see is how many leaders we have, how many have been called, and how many have served in this congregation.
When you think of a good leader, what characteristics do you think of? Charisma, focus, agenda, knowledge?
Our Book of Order describes the gifts and requirements for those called to exercise special functions in the church – be it as a deacon or an Elder (and I think we can extend this to those who are called to be a Trustee, or serve on the Nominating Committee, or as an Elected Leader) in the following way:
“To those called to exercise special functions in the church…. God gives suitable gifts for their various duties. In addition to possessing the necessary gifts and abilities, natural and acquired, those who undertake particular ministries should be persons of strong faith, dedicated discipleship, and love of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Their manner of life should be a demonstration of the Christian gospel in the church and in the world. They must have the approval of God’s people.”
Well, right there we have the characteristics of a faith leader within the church:
dedicated leadership and
love of Jesus Christ.
To be a leader of the church, one must seek to follow Jesus.
To be a leader means to seek follow the one called Lord and Savior. And what is the model that Jesus presents for us?
In the scripture today we read of Jesus’ first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth. He had just been baptized in the Jordan and had heard the voice say to him: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” And then he had been led by the Spirit into the wilderness – where he began to figure out what this belovedness meant. In the dessert he was tempted by the Devil (we are told) to turn stones into bread (solve the hunger problem); to become the supreme political authority, and to be recognized as the Messiah (throw yourself off the temple.) In short Jesus was tempted to do great good, and clear up all the political and religious issues of the world. To take the lead and do things. And Jesus said, “No.”
What Jesus began to discover and continued to learn was that giving his heart to God meant radical obedience and relinquishment, emptying himself, letting go of control. The key characteristic of Lordship was not lording it over people. Jesus had this profound humility, groundedness, openness – a willingness to follow and to see in others profound beauty and worthiness.
So Jesus was grounded in belovedness, and tempered by obedience, and it allowed him to be bold.
So after this experience in the wilderness, Jesus is “filled with the power of the Spirit, ” which is a different kind of power then we usually think about, no? And he enters his hometown and preaches a very short sermon. Indeed it was one sentence long: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Now don’t get me wrong, I want to follow Jesus – but clearly that one sentence rule is tough for me to follow.
Jesus lays out for his audience and for us here today what his gospel agenda is going to be. Grounded in the anointing of the Holy Spirit, Jesus believes that he has been sent to bring good news to the poor. He has been sent to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of the sight to the blind. He has been sent to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
What a peculiar agenda – from 20,000 feet it looks like our culture wants to incarcerate more people and tell people that they are not worthy, not in God’s favor.
But if we are to follow Jesus then our leaders of this church need to claim and proclaim that this is the year of the Lord’s favor, that the goal of our ministry is to proclaim release from whatever captivates you, to celebrate that there is more happening than what we can see (and often times the blind know this better than anyone), and to free people from the variety of oppressions – so much different that what we usually hear from pulpits and many Christians and certainly from the advertisements that we are manipulated by every time we turn on the TV or read a magazine.
The bottom line of Jesus’ leadership and service is joy. Think about a time when you were weighted down with a worry and then it was lifted – how did you feel? Think about a time when you were separated and divided from one you love and then were reconciled – what is better than that? Think about a time when you just couldn’t see a way out – and then you did. What was your reaction? Think about a time when you didn’t have enough money to get a Chipotle and then your Father slipped you a $20. Now, I know that Jesus’ agenda was far larger than our little personal lives – but no life is insignificant to Jesus – and anywhere we experience joy, hope, reconciliation, love – it is empowering and freeing and wonderful.
But even a leadership based on the agenda of joy, release, and favor is agitative. Some of us don’t want to be released – because release from something means release for something else- and so we have to take up our crosses and follow. Sometimes real joy, and real release and favor means great change and some of us are stuck in low self-identification – we won’t grasp what is offered. And the citizens of Nazareth, those who were gathered to hear Jesus on that day – eventually tried to throw Jesus off the cliff. And we know, that Jesus’ leadership didn’t sit too well with entrenched sources of power – and he got himself killed for it. So the leadership style of Jesus in some ways was not the most effective – at least in his brief span.
But we won’t focus on crucifixion today lest we scare all these newly elected leaders away. I have been in ministry for 20 years and never seen a Elder or a Deacon thrown off a cliff or crucified – so relax.
My point is this – Christian leadership is one of joy and service but sometimes of agitation and opposition, but shaped always by humility and respect – because you might be wrong.
You are called not to represent a constituency – you are not on Session as a liberal or a conservative, as representing the young or the old, the new member or established member – rather you are called together to discern God’s will for this church, to yearn to lead this community of faith into the hope and promise of Jesus Christ.
You can bring all sorts of particular knowledge to the task (and some of you were nominated because you had the necessary skills and gifts required) but you will need to hone your skills of discernment – and that means prayer and knowledge of the Bible. You will need to worship with us as often as possible. For how can you lead us if you are not among us?
Another thing about Christian leadership – it is not hierarchical. Surely there are identifiable leaders who step forward – somebody has to be in charge. But as St. Paul reminds us we are a body of many members. We all have been baptized so there is no Jew or Greek, no Slave or Free, no Gay or Straight – we have all drunk of the Spirit and therefore offer our gifts.
And there is no hierarchy of gifts – it is not up to us to consider our gift as unworthy or unneeded. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (I Cor. 12:26).
One last characteristic of Jesus leadership is the ability to call others. He called disciples. He was always on the look out for talent especially in unexpected people: prostitutes, tax collectors, soldiers, fisher folk – Jesus didn’t do everything himself.
For those of you who will be leaving positions of leadership, thank you. We can’t thank you enough. Know your service to God’s kingdom at this church was vital. Together we accomplished much and moved from strength to strength.
For those of you will be taking on leadership, thank you. You can do it. The Nominating Committee is confident that you, called and elected by the congregation, are the ones God wanted and that you together will lead us towards the light of peace, and hope and justice and joy. Remember that and be of good courage.
For those of you in the pew – you too are gifted and blessed. This may not be your time. Your special call from God may not be to the institution. It is all good. But never consider yourself unworthy, or unloved, or ungifted, or useless – because the Spirit of God is upon you too. Be grounded in prayer, open to the spirit, connected to the body, embraced by love – who knows where this will lead you.
So let us begin this annual ritual of ordination and installation – we seek nothing less than the Spirit of the Living and Loving God to descend, empower, inspire and anoint so that we together at Forest Hill Church can proclaim with joy that 2010 is the year of the Lord’s favor. So be it!